Tales of Symphonia is a classic JRPG from the GameCube era with a wide following, multiple (mostly Japanese) spin-offs, and now a well-deserved HD remaster. In addition to the underrated and underplayed gem, this new collection also contains the second game in the series, Dawn of the New World – although the primary reason for its inclusion appears to be to help you to appreciate the original that little bit more.
For those that have never played the original, you may be surprised by how dark it is. The bright visuals and cheery expressions belie an adult plot concerning genocide, murder, and greed. In truth, it packs a fair amount of punch, forcing you to care about the characters quickly, and leave you open-mouthed at every twist.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t quieter, more light-hearted moments. The balance between tense and fun is perfect, rivalling the likes of Final Fantasy VII. That equilibrium is what creates a believable world, and makes it hard to escape from. You’ll want to talk to every single individual, and buy everything available. You’ll probably even feel compelled to see the 30 hour adventure through three or four times in order to earn the Platinum.
You play as Lloyd Irving, a confident young man who joins his friend Collette on a journey to save the world. Along the way, they meet a colourful cast of characters, each with their own backstory and reason to tag along. The destination (and wider story arc involving it) is a little bit plain, basically boiling down to “go everywhere and do everything”, but the smaller stuff makes the adventure all the more enjoyable. Stopping off in a little town and watching as your party turns up at just the right time to help out never gets old, and you always leave with something to remember. This is a world that sticks in the mind.
It’s helped quite a bit by the design. The title features a fully explorable world; it’s one of the old JRPGs where every door can be unlocked and every corner of the planet has a story to tell. Cities and villages come to life with their own specific architecture and history. There’s colour, structure, and reason to walk off the beaten path.
While the textures may look almost N64-like to those of you who’ve bought a PlayStation 4, and mountains may suddenly sneak up out of nowhere as you walk (as mountains tend to do, the evil things), the original atmosphere is in no way lost. Meanwhile, the drop from 60 frames-per-second is hardly noticeable, angry fans will be happy to hear. There are occasional animations that seem oddly sluggish, but it shouldn’t be a major factor in your purchase. Even fighting seems to look rather good.
The game’s battle system is different to the norm and fun to use. It’s very action-based – more so than anything else of its era. You control Lloyd, and can actually move around the battlefield, hitting things in real-time. With friends to back you up, you can perform powerful combos and special moves, defeating enemies quickly and effectively – although it is quite an easy game.
In fact, you’ll probably struggle getting from place to place more than you will with the fights. The biggest barriers between you and the next chunk of story either come in the form of a long, meandering dungeon or from missing an off-hand comment about your next destination. In a game where levelling is all but useless, frequent fights become something of a chore, and that’s made worse in dungeons. These often have annoying puzzles that only serve to artificially extend an already lengthy session of spelunking.
In an age where we expect large green arrows to point in the direction of the next event, Tales of Symphonia can be a little unforgiving. Sometimes it just leaves you to do whatever you want, sometimes someone will suggest you go somewhere minutes before you realise that you even need to. It can be very vague, and while handholding is never a good thing, the way the game allows you to travel to the wrong location because you’ve missed a two sentence cutscene elsewhere is very frustrating.
In other words, it’s a JRPG, and it brings with it all the positives and negatives inherent to the genre. It’s extremely linear, painfully so, but it makes up for it with a fantastic story and identifiable characters. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry – which pretty much sums up the sequel as well, although for different reasons.
It’s hard to tell if there’s something lost in translation when it comes to Dawn of the New World. The basic plot follows a young man with little confidence trying to find his own identity after the death of his parents. In some ways, this is handled relatively well; it’s interesting to see his fight style develop as he becomes surer of himself. In other ways, though, it’s far less striking.
In the opening hours of the game, you’ll meet a main character that cries when he gets into a fight, that is scared of being bullied by his aunt and uncle, and who is ostracized to such an extent in his community that it becomes almost funny. Speaking to the average non-playable character in the first town will result in you being told what a loser you are and how everybody hates you. Honestly, with games like this, who needs parents?
Emil, the pitiful soul you embody throughout your adventure, starts from such a pathetic place that any improvement seems almost laughable by comparison. When he makes a pact with a supernatural being and becomes possessed during battle, his voice drops by what seems like an entire octave. He goes from the whiniest teenager in the history of gaming – a category that includes every person that you’ve ever spoken to online – to an 80s action hero in seconds.
It doesn’t help that a lot of what made the original game special has been lost. You can no longer explore the world map, and the main characters that you’ve come to love now play minor roles on the side-lines. Moreover, the battle system is tweaked, but not in any meaningful way. It’s smoother, with slightly more options, but has the same core foundations. You’ll be joined in battle by monsters this time around, but the system is overly complicated and offers little in the way of reward, and so will probably be a side focus of your adventure at best.
The best that you can say about Dawn of the New World is that it continues the story of Tales of Symphonia. Re-visiting locations to see how they’ve changed is pleasant, but this is probably not worth the price of entry unless you’re a mega fan of the franchise.
Thankfully, you can jump onto the PlayStation Store and buy each entry individually for about half the price, which means that if you’re new to the Tales of Symphonia series, you can purchase a classic without the risk of wasting money on a subpar sequel.
Tales of Symphonia deserves your attention. If you can stomach JRPGs at all, you owe it to yourself to check it out. The biggest disappointment in this compilation is the sequel, so we recommend picking up the first game cheaper from the PlayStation Store. Then proceed to brush out your spiky wig, pop on your +3 INT reading glasses, and settle down for quite a trip.